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Ira Berlin Is Dead at 77; Groundbreaking Historian of Slavery

Ira Berlin Is Dead at 77; Groundbreaking Historian of Slavery

But that did not mean slavery was the same everywhere, especially once the plantation system took hold in the South. He distinguished between “societies with slaves” — where slavery was just one form of labor — and more brutal “slave societies,” where (as he wrote in “Many Thousands Gone”) “slavery stood at the center of economic production, and the master-slave relationship provided the model for all social relations: husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, teacher and student.”

The historian Steven Hahn described the effect of Dr. Berlin’s scholarship.

“He forced us to confront the deep histories of slavery and captivity in North America,” he said by email, “the enormous changes that took place as much of the country came to be dominated by slavery and slaveholders, and the central role of slaves and freedpeople in destroying the most formidable slave system in the world and in forging the road of freedom and democracy.”

Dr. Hahn singled out a series that the Freedmen and Southern Society Project began publishing in the 1980s called “Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation.” The series established an agenda that is followed by historians to this day, he said.

“His mark on the field of slavery and African-American history stands as one of the most significant since W. E. B. Du Bois,” Dr. Hahn said.

Dr. Berlin was an advocate for improved teaching of history. He helped establish teacher seminars sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, leading summer seminars on slavery for teachers from across the country, James G. Basker, the institute’s president said.

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